Researchers have found new evidence that suggests ancestors of Australia’s Aboriginals arrived in northern Australia 65,000 years ago.
A team of researchers from the University of Queensland and the University of Washington found and dated artefacts including crayons, pigments and what are thought to be among the world’s oldest hatchets.
They published their findings on Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The artefacts indicate that humans were in Australia 65,000 year ago, which is up to 18,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The researchers found the artefacts at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in Australia’s Northern Territory that has been excavated since the early 1970s. Over the years, thousands of stone tools and human remains have been found at Madjedbebe at it has continued to be a site of interest for archaeologists.
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Cooperating with the local Aboriginal community – who assisted in the excavation – the researchers dug deeper than before and were rewarded for their efforts.
“We were gobsmacked by the richness of material that we were finding at the site: fireplaces intact, a ring of grind stones around it, and there were human burials in their graves,” lead author of the study Chris Clarkson told The New York Times. “No one dreamed of a site so rich and so old in Australia.”
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Clarkson, an archaeologist from the University of Queensland, was also part of a team that uncovered more than 11,000 artefacts during visits to the site in 2012 and 2015.
The artefacts are dated by examining the sediment in which they were buried. Archaeologists use radiocarbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), a technique that involves measuring doses of ionising radiation. Put simply, OSL examines radiation to detect the last time that the sediment was exposed to heat or sunlight.
It has been speculated that early people in Australia killed all of the land’s megafauna (giant animals), but these artefacts suggest that they lived together.
“Previously it was thought that humans arrived and hunted them out or disturbed their habits, leading to extinction, but these dates confirm that people arrived so far before that they wouldn’t be the central cause of the death of megafauna,” co-author Ben Marwick said.
The new evidence suggests that humans and megafauna may have coexisted for up to 25,000 years.
“It shifts the idea of humans charging into the landscape and killing off the megafauna. It moves toward a vision of humans moving in and coexisting, which is quite a different view of human evolution,” added Marwick.
Australia’s megafauna included giant kangaroos, 6-metre long goannas and two-tonne marsupials that resembled wombats.